On the Eve of the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1938, Geoffrey Firmin, the former British consul, yearns for his wife Yvonne, who left him a year earlier. An alcoholic, he has given up on himself and the world at large. At a Red Cross ball, Geoffrey embarrasses the guests with a drunken speech against violence afoot around the globe. His friend Dr. Vigil takes him to a church and prays for the return of the Consul's wife.
The next day, Yvonne miraculously appears. She wants to renew their relationship and has written him so in some letters he has misplaced, but is appalled at the advanced state of his alcoholism. When Geoffrey and she try to make love, memories of her adultery with his half-brother Hugh drive him out of bed and into the streets.
On the Day of the Dead, Cuernavaca's citizens are celebrating: picnics are held in cemeteries over the graves of dead relatives, people dress up in costumes, vendors sell goods, and a carnival spirit pervades. The Consul persuades Yvonne and Hugh, a journalist recently returned from covering the Civil War in Spain, to partake in the holiday's festivities.
The three take a bus to Tomalin where a rodeo/bullfight is being held. On the way, they see evidence of violence which seems to mirror the senseless death occuring in Europe. While Hugh plays matador in the ring, Yvonne tries to convince the very drunk Consul to leave Mexico with her and begin a new life in Maine or Canada. For a moment, he shares her dream, but then Hugh returns to the table, and Geoffrey lashes out at them for betraying him. He will not accept anything less than hell as his destiny. He staggers away to "El Farolito," a notoriously sleazy hotel.
There he discovers the misplaced letters from Yvonne's year of absence. He reads them and realizes there is no hope for their relationship. After consorting with a prostitute, Geoffrey is hassled by the fascist secret police. He challenges them, and they deal out the death he has so earnestly sought.
When Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano was published in 1947, The New York Times called it "one of the towering novels of this century," and some critics acclaimed it as a work equal in stature to Ulysses or Moby Dick. Many film directors — Luis Bunuel, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey among them — have toyed with the idea of translating this intense and difficult novel to the screen. Now John Huston, who achieved incredible results with his 1979 movie version of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, has taken up the challenge. Using a screenplay by Guy Gallo, he has focused the drama on the relationship between the Consul, Yvonne, and Hugh. For Huston, Geoffrey is an extraordinary man: "His reaction to life is to get drunk and he gets drunk in a heroic way." For Gallo, the story boils down to "the difficulty of loving and loving well, the notion of responsibility. Malcolm Lowry was supremely sensitive to the connection of love and history."
The film is representative of Huston's love of misfits — remember the idiosyncratic characters in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Man Who Would Be King? This veteran director draws out a towering performance from Albert Finney. As the Consul, he is a tormented drunkard inwardly oppressed by demons of self-hate and guilt and outwardly disgusted with the fallen world encrusted with proliferating evils. Finney is at once sensitive and pathetic, intellecutally brillant and emotionally barren. It is a tour de force acting job that surpasses anything else this British actor has done on the screen.
Jacqueline Bisset is credible as the painfully helpless Yvonne — a lover who tries to save her man but is dragged down with him. Anthony Andrews as Hugh, the earnest English gentleman and stalwart friend, registers a fine performance as well.
In a letter to his publisher in 1946, Malcolm Lowry wrote that his principal concern in Under the Volcano was with "the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself." In addition, the novelist was interested in "the guilt of man, with his remorse, with his ceaseless struggling toward the light under the weight of his past, and with his doom."
No doubt this screen version of Under the Volcano will stir as many varied responses as the book. The Consul can be seen as a burnt-out case or as a hero who says no to the brave new world of power and betrayal. His life and death can be viewed as sad, sloppy and unfortunate, or as a parable about the pit.
In his biography Malcolm Lowry, Douglas Day calls Under the Volcano "the greatest religious novel of the century." While not everyone will rank it that loftily, many will concur with his view that the message of the work is essentialy moral: it is not possible to live without love; hell is being trapped in one's own psyche while refusing the beams of love and human camaraderie which beckons us out into the light.
"The novel can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera," Malcolm Lowry wrote. "It is hot music . . . a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy . . . It is superficial, profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste."
John Huston's screen version of Under the Volcano captures and conveys the novel's "hot music." The film's different movements are orchestrated with great care and precise detail; and in the end, it is a profound and entertaining movie worth attending to with all the seriousness we can muster.